This week, within the space of 48 hours, the United States elected its next president and the Chinese Communist Party will convene in Beijing to begin the formal handover of power to the next generation of its leadership. To many, this pivotal transition point for the world’s two largest economies holds out the promise of deliverance from the specter that’s been haunting decision-making ever since the collapse of Lehman Brothers four years ago: the specter of “uncertainty.” If there is a phrase that CEOs, politicians and investors use more often to explain everything from poor performance to halting growth to lack of investment and a reluctance to boost hiring, it might just be its near-cousin, “volatility.”
The reality, however, is that the long-awaited, much-desired “certainty” is a mirage. Uncertainty and volatility, in economics and politics, are now as permanent to the macro landscape as competition, resource scarcity, disruptive technology and the race for talent. Leave aside the false nostalgia for a certainty of outlook that never quite was – or, rather, for a kind of uncertainty that only seemed to surprise on the upside during the years of the great moderation. Ignore as well the fact that uncertainty and volatility too often are used as synonyms for the structural challenge of the long period of deleveraging still facing major Western economies. No election in the United States, and no leadership change in China – however orderly, pro-growth, or politically decisive they may be – can reverse the structural shift towards uncertainty in the global macro environment.
It is a shift that is defined not just by a range of geopolitical tail risks as diverse as they are potentially consequential: a war between Israel and Iran over Tehran’s suspected nuclear weapons program; the deepening radicalization of nuclear-weapons-armed Pakistan at every level of its pulverized society; the rising tide of nationalism in East Asia threatening conflicts across multiple boundaries; the danger of far more paralyzing cyber-attacks on state and private sector organizations; the as-yet-to-drop second shoe of the Arab Awakening in the Gulf states (including Saudi Arabia) pivotal to global energy markets.
Nor is it merely a matter of economic uncertainty emerging from the still-unresolved question of whether the euro zone will manage to make its sovereign debt good through the unlimited financial commitment of its Central Bank, and the unwavering political commitment of its paymaster in Berlin; or whether the hollowing out of the moderate center in the U.S. political landscape will make going over the “fiscal cliff” – even at the cost of a 3-4 percent contraction in GDP – the better bet for a deeply polarized system; or how China’s prudent management of its next period of growth can be reconciled with a creeping oligarchy that threatens to render the all-important allocation of state capital irreversibly corrupted by personal elite interests.
Even if these geopolitical and geo-economic uncertainties were to be reduced or removed, two historical shifts would continue to multiply the variables affecting the macro landscape for investors and businesses. First, the proliferation of a diverse range of states and entities with sufficient economic and political power to affect the global agenda means that there is far less predictability and transparency in the international system. Second, the rise of state power in developed as well as developing countries has made the nexus of business and government the decisive one, with far greater policy event-risk in the markets as a consequence.